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Marsha Sampson Johnson, Diversity Advocate and Former CHRO of Southern Company: Diversity Can’t Just Be a Program

WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
WorkforceRx with Futuro Health
Marsha Sampson Johnson, Diversity Advocate and Former CHRO of Southern Company: Diversity Can’t Just Be a Program


Spurred by heightened activism in 2020 against persistent racism in the U.S., many business leaders are engaged in a reckoning of their own policies, behaviors and corporate culture to determine how those might be contributing to systemic inequity and exclusion. Marsha Sampson Johnson, a leading diversity advocate and veteran corporate leader, has advice for those undertaking this work. “Diversity and inclusion can never just be a program. It can never be a department. If it is not incorporated into every aspect of the organization, it will never be successful.” Sampson Johnson, a retired senior executive from Fortune 200 energy giant Southern Company, has had an extraordinary career as an executive, mentor, writer and international speaker. In this trenchant conversation with Futuro Health CEO Van Ton-Quinlivan, she shares insights gained from decades of providing leadership in HR, Talent Management and Diversity, discusses the impact of the pandemic on women in the workforce, and touches on the value of leadership development programs such as those sponsored by the International Women’s Forum where she spent many years as a Global Director.


Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRX with Futuro Health, where future-focused education, health care and workforce leaders explore new ideas for education to work approaches and innovations. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health. 2020 will obviously be remembered for the coronavirus pandemic and an extraordinary presidential election, but historians are also sure to note that awareness of entrenched racism and bias in the U.S. rose to a level not seen in decades. As a result, many business leaders have engaged in a reckoning of their own policies, behaviors and corporate culture to determine how they may be contributing to systemic inequity and exclusion. We could not have a better guide for taking a look at these issues today than Marsha Sampson Johnson, who has had an extraordinary career as an executive, mentor, writer and international speaker. She’s a retired senior executive from Fortune 200 energy giant Southern Company, where she provided leadership in H.R., customer service, talent management and diversity over her long career. She’s also a longtime member of the International Women’s Forum, recently stepping down as a global director. In fact, it was through an IWF Fellows program that Marsha and I first met. It’s so great to reconnect with you and have you on this podcast, Marsha.

Marsha Sampson Johnson: Well, I’m happy to be here, Van. You know, we’re real fans of you at the IWF and all that you’re doing for education across the country. So, I’m just happy to be here. I’m not sure if I’m worthy of all that you said, but let’s have a conversation.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: We’re so looking forward to your insights, Marsha. Well, let’s start with this: diversity, equality and inclusion has grown in prominence as an H.R. focus in recent years, but we may not all be on the same page with what it means. Can you start, Marsha, by telling us how you define it?

Marsha Sampson Johnson: If you think about diversity as everything that is different, and sometimes common about us across the entire human continuum, that’s diversity. It could be anything from color to language to lives to people we associate with different communities. It could be anything. So, diversity is this large continuum. Equity becomes creating a level kind of playing field. That’s all equity is. Then inclusion is…we can only include after we have equity, because if we don’t, we get the onesies and the twosies. If we don’t have a level playing field for people to enter, we continue to make exceptions. So, we have what we call the token diverse person representing whatever group you want to name, or whatever characteristic you want to name, but it is only through having accessible systems and creating an equitable platform that we can end up with an inclusive environment. I hope that’s not too complicated, but you don’t just get to inclusion. You have to first acknowledge that there is, in the vernacular of businesses and corporations, “talent” in every aspect of diversity. Once I acknowledge that, then my second thing is to say, “how can I make my system, my environment accessible to all those? And how then, once accessible, do I ensure there is equity and opportunity…an equal playing field?” Once I get that, then I can really build upon an inclusive environment. Without it, I’m kind of stuck.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Let’s dive a little bit deeper on that. We’re really benefiting from having your perspective as a leading diversity advocate. You talked about equity and opportunity, for example. Can you give us some examples of blind spots in our corporate processes that can result in exclusivity instead of inclusivity?

Marsha Sampson Johnson: Blind spots occur when we don’t acknowledge that there is systemic bias and when we don’t acknowledge that we keep moving with systems and processes and protocols that continue to perpetuate bias. For example, if I only recruit from certain schools. If I only allow internships with schools that are on a semester kind of schedule rather than those who have schedules that are divided into two quarters. The whole definition of inclusion means that I’m going to make sure that I make allowances in the environment for differences. Blind spots can be I never have hired anyone from this place.  I’ll give you a good one…hiring certain classifications of persons yet making sure — and this goes into something we’ve talked about before — making sure that the job requirements or the hiring requirements or the skill set is reflective of the person who has the highest level of skill who’s ever been in that job, rather than really assessing the work and determining what is the level of competency needed to do this job. We have eliminated so many people by not opening ourselves up to first being very critical, but clear, about the levels of competency needed to do a job. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that cuts out a lot of people. It also cuts out a lot of people from promotions. If you say, for example, in order to be a supervisor you must have been in the role of this job for 15 years but your company just started hiring diverse populations six years ago, that means that you’re going to have to just keep working through, you keep working through, and you never get there. Never getting there is not compromising on any of the basic skill sets needed to do the work because on that, we should never, ever compromise. But we are being untrue to ourselves, untrue to the corporation in many instances in the establishment of basic requirements to do the work.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: That’s an excellent example of how bias can manifest unconsciously. I remember back in my days when I was in the energy sector doing workforce development, the company was struggling with hiring diversity. When I asked about its processes, one of the things it did was do a posting but because it was getting too many candidates and didn’t have enough people to screen through all the candidates. They only opened the window for applications for one hour. That meant only friends of existing employees would know to apply, rather than a more diverse universe. So, that’s another example of unconscious processes that resulted in precluding candidates that could have been good.

Marsha Sampson Johnson: Well, I think that example, and even my example, don’t necessarily reflect people’s intentions to be biased but they absolutely reflect a lack of intention to be inclusive, to be diverse, to make sure that we include people of all backgrounds because it is the absence of intentionality that is the enemy of sustained progress when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Too many of these programs are programs. You have an H.R. department and then within H.R. — which is frequently not the most valued entity in an organization — you have a subset of diversity and so you check the box because you have a department. Diversity and inclusion can never be a program. It can never be a department. It is not about that. If it is not incorporated into every aspect of the entity, it will never — and I will bank my life on it — it will never be successful if its hub is just in H.R. and the department known as “Diversity”.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Marsha, you spent part of your career leading H.R. and talent management functions and you talked about the intentionality of doing the work to make sure that it’s inclusive, that the workforce is inclusive, not exclusive. What makes the most difference in creating an inclusive workforce?

Marsha Sampson Johnson: I think you have to start with the infrastructure of an organization. If you gave me the book of policies, practices and protocols for an organization, I could probably tell you how inclusive that organization was. I think that training is good and necessary, but what’s enduring is infrastructure. That’s where you have to really begin to sustain the work of diversity and inclusion — with policies, with protocols, with practices, with systems that promote and reward, with all those things that are behind the scenes that people don’t see.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: This is so interesting. You talk about being able to look at someone’s policies and practices and being able to tell how inclusive that culture is. Can you give some examples of maybe what’s a “tell”?

Marsha Sampson Johnson: If you just walked the whole of an organization, if you could be a fly on the wall at meetings, if you could eavesdrop at the water cooler, if you could just be there, you would know if an organization really believed in diversity, equity, access and inclusion. We know where we are.  This stuff is hard, and we want to get there without any pain. We want to get there without any change to the organization. We want to get there making everyone who has traditionally gone up and down the ladder feel there will be no change to their ability to do that in a diverse and inclusive environment and that’s simply not the case. The pipeline is where we spend a lot of time, and while that is very important, you could stay in the pipeline for decades. Our pipelines are fragile at best. I mean, that’s what I call infrastructure. It’s what happens at the board level. It’s “what are we doing with supplier development and supplier relations?  Are we requiring our suppliers to exhibit the kind of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity that we are requiring? That’s how you make a mark beyond your borders and communicate to everybody inside the organization that you’re serious because it cannot be a one-off. It is the one-off limits of diversity and inclusion that makes us talk about it over and over and over again, seemingly making very, very slow progress.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: I appreciate you laying out the breadth and depth of how we can view inclusion, ranging from talent pipeline to supplier relations. When we talk about talent pipeline, for example, you uniquely have seen succession planning and talent pipeline development from the board level all the way down. What are the next steps that manifest in this process to ensure that there is inclusivity, Marsha?

Marsha Sampson Johnson: I think the word I would use is accountability. You have to hold people in the organization accountable for demonstrating and executing the values that are spoken about diversity and inclusion. If people are not held accountable — again, they may not be just flat out racist…some of them very well could be, but they may not be on the large scale — they will take the easy route. They have to be held accountable for lifting of names and defending those names themselves, not just putting a name on a sheet of paper.  Because if I say OK, every year, you have to send in the names of five people who are ready for the next level and two of the five have to be diverse candidates — a woman or a person of color or some other characteristic — then I can do that. But if I have to say for all these persons on the list, I must have some assessment of where they are, what the gaps are between their readiness to go to the next level and on top of that, what I am doing, what resources of the organization am I committing to close the gap. Now, that’s a whole different accountability for me as a manager than just saying, “oh, yeah, I had three diverse candidates last year.’ It’s “what are you doing beyond that?” My evaluation as a strong leader in the organization has to be coupled with accountability for execution and demonstration of the verbalized values of the organization.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: What’s your response, Marsha, to those who assert that inclusivity can diminish quality of results?

Marsha Sampson Johnson: I call B.S. to that because what one does in any organization is support and ascribe to the highest attainment of goals of the organization and the diversity and inclusion. The thing that used to make my blood boil most was that question you just asked. It is so steeped in resistance to diversity and inclusion. It’s just a quick off-the-cuff kind of thing. And not only that, there have been studies, numerous studies, that show productivity, innovation, and creativity all rise with diversity of the workforce. So it’s not just me saying that because I want it to be true. There are a number of studies that have proven that, and they’ve proven it starting with the diversity of boards of directors and how representative and inclusive and diverse they are and the subsequent productivity and profitability of organizations.  I think that has never been true, and is certainly not true today, that you would have a downturn in quality, productivity and profitability as a result of moving to create a diverse environment.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Marsha, you’ve seen so much through your career and life. What is something you would advise your younger self after observing and living through the Black Lives Matter movement?

Marsha Sampson Johnson: My message is not to my younger self. My message is to my old lady self, my 69-year-old lady self. And it is to remember my younger self. To remember the awe that I had, the courage that I had, the unwillingness to accept things that were not fair and just. I think that my older self, without being reminded, could get comfortable. I went out to a march with my 16-year-old great nephew and I have never felt so energized and right. I think people my age and people who have grown comfortable with what is, have to remind ourselves of what can be and commit ourselves to making sure we risk something to get there. Because what we don’t want to do is risk anything, and we have to risk something.  If you’re not risking anything, then you’re probably not doing very much.  I don’t know if that answered your question, but I don’t have much advice for my younger self. I mean, my younger self was pretty out there. I’m not sure my younger self would listen to advice anyway (laughs) but my older self has learned a few lessons.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, certainly the moment calls on all of us to be reflective and see what we can do differently. You know, Marsha, we met through the International Women’s Forum Global Fellows Programs. Our companies sponsored us when we were both mid-career as part of a group of 14 women from around the world. Talk about why programs like these, or executive programs like the Harvard International Senior Managers Program that you attended, are helpful to career development.

Marsha Sampson Johnson: You know, we talk about it all the time in our group of 14 and we’re still together. There is nothing better for expanding the mind than challenging one’s assumptions, having them challenged, opening yourself up to different perspectives, to different solutions to perhaps a different view at a depth that you had not known before. The International Women’s Forum and the Harvard Senior Managers Program did that for me. I had not experienced a closeness with people who were very, very different, who came from different places. I was not challenged by thoughts and cultures and systems that I just had not known. The International Women’s Forum, with its seven thousand plus high achieving women leaders across thirty-three nations and six continents…boy, that was just the height, and remains for me, the height of motivation, of encouragement, of just boosting my spirits and my resolve to do, to deliver. Not just for me, but for my community, for my country, for the world. So it is that mixture of excitement, of energy in one spot that you can tap into and I still to this day, you know. The International Women’s Forum is really at the heart of so much that I do.  My Harvard group was my immersion into multicultural perspectives and that’s what I will always treasure. You have to get outside your comfort zone and I really think that perhaps that’s the biggest lesson — gaining comfort with being outside your comfort zone.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Well, in this moment in time when changes are so rapid and so quick on all of us, this lesson of being comfortable being outside of the comfort zone is truly a poignant one. I certainly felt very privileged and fortunate to become introduced to the International Women’s Forum, mid-career, early in my 30s, to the Global Fellows Program. I know one of the things that I got out of it was that I was able to see ahead at the life cycle of women — both during the career and in the personal life. By doing so, I managed to avoid some of the pitfalls that occurred and could anticipate some of these cycles that would happen. Especially as you transition between careers, transition to different life stages — you know, when you have young children or when you have an empty nest — there were a lot of lessons learned from the women who went ahead. And that brings us to Eva Sage-Gavin, who’s another International Women’s Forum member and was featured in one of our prior podcasts. She talks about something that is happening now, specifically as a result of the pandemic, which is that many corporate leaders are staying awake worrying that this pandemic is causing a “she-session” — basically a recession for women — eroding the progress of women in the workforce, especially because not only are they dealing with all the issues of normal balance, but with schools being closed, the children are in the home which is taking a toll on the female workforce. What thoughts can you share regarding how this pandemic is affecting the female workforce and on how the future of work will impact and play out for women executives?

Marsha Sampson Johnson: I don’t know if I have enough current insight, but I have some thoughts. I want to segment the women in the workforce a bit, because, as I said, the pipeline is fragile. I think that women who are currently in executive positions or perhaps senior management positions are far better positioned to navigate challenges that occurred during the pandemic. Women who are in the pipeline, who are at other levels in the organization, I really fear for them and feel for them being at home trying to manage all of those things in one space without any help. I do believe that those women are being negatively impacted. I don’t know for how long. I think it really will depend on the recovery and the industry. The interesting thing is corporations have figured out the whole dynamic in the workplace will be changed by the pandemic because they don’t need all these people at work in a building. They can manage remotely, and if I can manage remotely, I can shift certain costs to the employee for infrastructure.  But then I have to ask, how does one navigate movement through the organization if one is unseen? This is a reflection of my age. I’m not saying I know this for a fact, these are just questions that I have had since the pandemic because I don’t think all these people will ever be called back to the office. They may not be furloughed or anything like that, but I think we will figure out ways to save a whole lot of money keeping a whole lot of people working from home.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: There’s an old adage right, out of sight, out of mind? And so back to your earlier point about talent development and the talent pipeline, I think we have to be conscious about the infrastructure of evaluating and promotion.

Marsha Sampson Johnson: Yes.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Especially as the workforce is not visible.

Marsha Sampson Johnson: That’s right. That’s right. It’s not as visible. It’s fragile. The diverse pipelines are fragile.  I would love to just see some statistics about how many people actually come back to work. How many people can come back, how many people have been furloughed just because they just couldn’t do it? They couldn’t be home with children, can’t go to daycare, children can’t go to school, the baby is crying in the background, there is no babysitter, there is no nanny, there is no private office for me. So, these are complex challenges and the solutions are not so easy to come by. When you said racism was entrenched and is now surfacing…I think a lot of things have been just smoldering beneath the surface. Not just racism, but a lot of “isms” that are coming to the fore, whether it’s what women’s work is in the home and what men do in the home; who can go out and be the breadwinner and who should stay at home; who can afford nannies and who can’t; whether they talk about it or not; how many cars do you have to get from point A to point B; how many computers. We talk about connectivity…there are families who don’t have but one computer and three children. So how are the children in those homes keeping up with the work that was being given when they didn’t have it before the pandemic? I just think that there is so much inequity that’s been exposed by the pandemic and because it’s been exposed so quickly, I think it was deeply entrenched, but not deeply hidden. It’s been there the whole time. It doesn’t take but one little scratch to make it obvious. It doesn’t take but one or two people leaving your executive ranks for you to have no diversity in your executive ranks, and we are still talking about that at the end of 2020. Again, I have been retired for over 10 years and the questions and the conversations are still the same. Until we get at the root cause, all these things that we do are just band-aids and tackling symptoms. That’s why I go back to infrastructure. I would encourage people who are responsible for, or who have influence over, what you’re doing in your organizations with diversity and inclusion to tackle infrastructure. Look at those systems, policies and practices that enable or hinder you having an environment that is diverse, accessible, equitable and inclusive.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: Your fan club, Marsha, has a phrase, “Marsha-isms”… life lessons you convey uniquely in your own words. Is there a Marsha-ism that you’d like to leave with us today?

Marsha Sampson Johnson: Get over it and get on with it.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: That is great advice. Thank you so much, Marsha, for giving us your insights from a career rich in experiences and insights. Thank you for being with us today.

Marsha Sampson Johnson: Thank you, Van.

Van Ton-Quinlivan: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRX. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.